Friday, August 2, 2013

From my book, THE JUJU RULES: The Day Thurman Munson died

Buy it here.

On the anniversary of his death, which I guess you could say had a profound impact on my life. I was a bureau reporter for the Binghamton Press in Norwich, N.Y.

One Thursday afternoon, the phone rang in the bureau, Jim on the line.
"You hear about Munson?"
“OK, yeah… hit me… what now?”
"I’m sorry…"
Thurman had died in a plane crash while visiting family in Ohio.
I laughed for a long, uncomfortable period, accusing Jim of over-playing the joke. Then it sank in: The Yankees were real people – and sometimes real things happened to them. Thurman Munson was gone, and he wouldn’t be back in two weeks. Soon, I was walking the streets in a daze, trying to process not only the tragedy, but – shamefully -- who would now catch for us, and should we pull off a quick trade?
When I returned, the office phone was ringing.
Spry phoned from Maryland. The Duke checked in from Massachusetts. Jocko from Rochester. For the next few hours, I fielded calls from Yankee lovers and haters scattered across the country. We all needed to talk.
“There’s a darkness on the edge of town,” the Dog Man said.
That night, our editor told us to write tight. The next day’s front page would be devoted to Thurman Munson, who had played in Binghamton. The headline said, "Munson is killed: Yankee captain, 32, dies in plane crash; was former Triplet.” The page hangs on the wall above me now.
Hank, my college friend, called from Syracuse. We quickly decided Friday night’s game would be an event for the ages, a piece of Yankee world history. We needed to grieve together. I would file my stories early and try to reach Syracuse by game time.
Friday evening, as I sped across the hills of Madison County, I almost didn’t recognize Phil Rizzuto’s voice on the pre-game show. He spoke in a feeble, old man’s groan. Now and then, he choked on a word, and it dawned upon me that Phil was crying.
Halfway through his talk, Rizzuto halted. After a few moments of dead air, he recited a prayer for Thurman, and then he said this:

You know, they say time heals all wounds.
And I don’t quite agree with that a hundred percent.
It gets you to cope with wounds.
You carry them the rest of your life.

I dined that night with Hank and his fiancĂ©, Marge, and her jewelry business partner, a tall, big-boned Midwesterner named Janice. She had huge, expressive eyes and hair that changed color in the light, from Bass to Molson’s to Killian’s. For months I had watched her from a distance, knowing she was out of my league.
You know the scene in the movie where the regular schmuck encounters the beauty? Every actor plays it differently. Dustin Hoffman (Yankee fan, by the way) sucks on his teeth, Richard Gere (ditto, a Yankee fan) flicks his eyebrows, Jack Nicholson (yep, Yankee fan) flashes his eyes, and Brad Pitt (you guessed it, Yankee fan) grins – because, well, Brad Pitt cannot play a regular schmuck.  
First time I saw Janice, I just pivoted on a heel and shielded my face, like Quasimodo. I didn’t want her to catch me staring. There was no sense wasting anybody’s time by trying to flirt. I would keep a distance and at least maintain dignity.  
We watched the game in a bar. For the National Anthem, the Yankees sent out only eight players. Thurman’s replacement, a catcher named Brad Gulden, remained in the dugout. As the players took their positions, the stadium went quiet. So did the bar. On TV, fans were weeping. In Syracuse, people wiped tears. Sitting in a booth, I disintegrated into a blubbering Yankee fool.
I droned on about how Thurman was my favorite Yankee, how I followed him throughout the minors, how my dad hated him, how my mom loved his name, how someone once called him “Herman Munster,” how Jim Wright picked on him, how he would be the one Yankee I wanted to catch me if I were falling off a bridge…  
I recalled driving home from Indiana the previous October, during the playoffs. We were down by a run in the eighth against Kansas City, the tying run on base, with Thurman coming to bat. For miles, the AM radio signal in my car had been dying, the play-by-play slowly bleeding into music. If I kept driving, I’d lose reception. And if I lost the sound, we would lose the game. With no other option, I pulled onto the shoulder of the Interstate and parked. I sat hunched over the dashboard, windows closed in the heat, while tractor-trailers whizzed by, lifting the car in their wakes. The Royals brought in Doug Bird, their dreaded bullpen leviathan, who had always killed us. My heart sank. On the third pitch, Thurman – who almost never hit home runs – slammed one into the left-centerfield bullpen, the deepest part of Yankee Stadium. I sat in my car screaming, pounding on the wheel.
If I’d been in George Steinbrenner’s box, I could have no clearer memory of that homerun, which I have never seen.
Now, sitting in Syracuse, I blathered on about how ballplayers weren’t supposed to die, how you take for granted they will be there, and I fell into a morbid funk. I recall nothing of that game, only those eight Yankees standing at their positions, the world having stopped because some baseball player had died.
But I do remember something else.
I recall noticing that Janice was watching me, locked in, nodding her head, smiling, wiping her eyes.
And I remember wondering, wow, could I have a chance?


Anonymous said...

I believe Jerry Narron started the game after Munson died.

SanJoseKid said...

Brad Gulden, I recall, got behind the plate after the moment of silence. I'll check the reference you gave, and look for the boxscore.

SanJoseKid said...

You're right. Narron struck out twice, so Gucci Gamble pinch hit. Then Gulden got behind the plate. Not the way I remember it, but then that was the 1970s and very little of that decade is distinct memory.

The late Erich Segal said...

El Duque, your prose bring tears to my eyes because it so much resembles my own . . . .

Unsustainable BABIP said...

I heard about his death at work; I was numb the rest of the afternoon and, that night, weeping, wrote a poem (a bad, 17-years-old-boy's poem) that I sent to the Yankees (which for some reason is NOT posted in Thurm's locker at museum in the Stadium). And I vividly remember that home run against KC. Right before he hit the camera panned in close and we saw his eyes glaring our from over that bushy mustache and my younger brother and I both knew -- just KNEW -- that he was going to come through.

Anonymous said...

Excerpt from a NY Daily News article:
And as the Yankees were preparing to play the Orioles in their first game without their captain, the starters took their place on the field as Robert Merrill sang the national anthem. All the starters, except for Narron. The catcher's spot remained empty. At the conclusion of the song, the crowd of 51,151 was asked for a moment of silence as a tribute to Munson as Narron waited near the dugout. That moment quickly morphed into a loud and sustained outpouring of love for Munson.

John M said...

And Murcer won that game for the Yanks. The only bright spot that day.

bennyboy said...

This was awesome.